Agenda item


            The Senior Manager – Economy introduced the item and advised that the European Social Fund (ESF) had been replaced by the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF). She highlighted the importance of partnership working with the employability and skills service providers across Belfast and confirmed that structures were already in place to support this.


            The Chairperson welcomed Mr. A. Irvine, CEO of East Belfast Mission, and Ms. J. Kinnear, CEO of Ashton Community Trust, representing Belfast Works, to the Committee as the ESF Peer Group was no longer operating.


            Mr. Irvine provided an overview of the work which had been undertaken by the European Social Fund Peer Group. He advised that, through the UK’s membership of the EU from 2014 until 2024, Northern Ireland had received ESF funding (+35% match funding from the Department for the Economy as well as other match funding, including other government departments and local councils) and this funding had enabled the organisations to support over 17,000 local people who were among the most vulnerable in society with support for:


·        The unemployed and economically inactive;

·        Disabled people;

·        Those not in employment, education or training; and

·        Community and family support.


            He highlighted that the overall strategic aims of the NI ESF Programme 2014 – 2020 were to combat poverty and enhance social inclusion by reducing economic inactivity and increase the skills base of those currently in work and future potential participants in the workforce.


            He stated that Grant Thornton’s Impact Evaluation of the Northern Ireland European Social Fund Programme 2014-2020 reported that 91.5% of respondents had said that the NI ESF had increased their chances of finding employment / undertaking training or education. It also stated that:


·        The NI ESF Programme delivered added value through offering a “wrap around” support approach to cohorts of unemployed people who are particularly distant from the labour market and who have complex needs;


·        With 11,690 participants having gained employment, a conservative estimate suggested a wage impact of £212 million across one year; and


·        For every €1 of NI ESF funding, an additional £0.77 had been generated in wages in a year.


            Mr. Irvine highlighted that the reduction in funding from the ESF Funds 2022/23 (52m) to the UK SP Funds for 2022/23 (25m) was 27m. He described the impact this would have on the sector and the concern that the services would dissolve, impacting 17,168 service users and 1,600 members of staff who provide the support. Further concerns included:


        Competition from Local Authorities moving into ‘Delivery’ rather than supporting Community Programmes;

        UKSPF need to raise their Revenue Funding; and

        NI Assembly needed to ‘enter’ this work which is critical to NI economy.


            Ms. Kinnear highlighted the experience of the groups delivering the services such as Ashton Community Trust, East Belfast Mission, Upper Springfield Development Trust, Impact Training and GEMS. She stated that the Groups and the Council needed to work together in partnership to carry out employability and skills services in a co-ordinated way.


            She suggested that the Council could play a convening role for UKSPF projects to stop duplication and ensure discussions could happen beyond the first round of UKSPF which ended in March 2025.


            She also advised that Belfast Works partners, delivering the Shared Prosperity Fund, would like to be involved with the relevant City Deal discussions, as their funding bid covered the City Deal area.


            During discussion, Members raised concerns in relation to the lack of funding for the sector and welcomed further partnership working with the service providers.


            After discussion, the Chairperson thanked Mr. Irvine and Ms. Kinnear for their attendance and they retired from the meeting.


            The Committee noted the information which had been provided.


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